The direction of biotechnology growth in South Africa

The direction of biotechnology growth in South Africa

South Africa’s rocky past and boycott from the rest of the world meant that in the industrial age and for a few decades beyond, we were on our own for the most part. This resulted in the innovative use of our own natural resources to become as self-sustainable as possible while our political situation reached a meltdown and then a resolution.

In spite of our short-term separation from the development of the rest of the world, we emerged with a determination for development, if nothing else, and now finally, South Africa is in a position to delve into research for new development technologies like biotechnology.

Biotechnology is described as the generation of products by using living organisms or living systems. Biotechnology is the technology behind immunisation, petrol, genetic engineering, composting, breeding animals, and beverages that require fermentation, among many others. Where biotechnology is of particular interest and relevance to South Africa is in the use of HIV treatment and antiretrovirals, wine-making, food and beverage production, and the development of other immunisations and treatments for chronic conditions such as tuberculosis, malaria, and non-infectious diseases in the country.

Biotechnology, however, is partially stuck between a rock and a hard place because research and development funding is not high on the priority list of a non-first-world country, although there are murmurs in government that biotech needs to be looked into if we are to solve many of the current social, medical and economic problems we currently face.

One of the elements affecting the development of biotechnology in South Africa is the migration of skills beyond the country’s borders. Maths and science are not particularly well-taught or well-received by learners in South Africa and those that do gain entry for tertiary study in Maths and science tends to go overseas to look for far more lucrative employment opportunities once they have graduated. Engineering jobs are currently also suffering the same fate and for the same reasons.

Currently on the cards for research in the biotechnology industry in South Africa is the use of genetically modified (GM) foods, especially since international GMO food companies want to provide GMO seeds for South Africa’s staple crop – maize. Our own research into how viable this is will be far more impartial than the seed companies’ research. One positive area of development is how local, indigenous, and natural plant knowledge can support the production of medical treatments from more natural plant substances than what’s currently available over the counter in a cloudy bottle.

Biodiversity, manufacture of goods and chemicals, as well as the production of medicine and vaccines are top priority and slowly but surely gaining the attention of government, who are warming to the idea of investing more into biotech research and development.